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Nice Column, But I Think Your Agenda's Showing

Andrew Wetzler

Posted January 1, 2008

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John Tierney has an interesting column in today's New York Times (it doesn't seem to be available on the the Times' web site)The basic thrust of his piece is that "activists, journalists, and scientists" are all working together to create an "availability cascade" about global warming.  Here are the key 'graphs:

Slow warming doesn't make for memorable images on television or in people's minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an ''availability cascade,'' a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. 

Tierney then goes on to mention other studies that he claims cast doubt on the reality or severity of global warming, but that he thinks didn't attract as much press coverage (I'll leave it to others who are so inclined to go through those studies in detail, but suffice it to say that they aren't nearly as persuasive as Tierney implies).  Putting the science aside for a moment, I think it's worth noting two problems with Tierney's argument.

First, Tierney imputes a semi-conspiratorial agenda to a diverse set of people where none may exist and, like all conspiracy theories, it suffers from needless complexity.  Rather than supposing that "activists, journalists and scientists" are working to create a complex psycho-cultural phenomena in order to influence the debate over global warming another, simpler explanation, exists: these folks actually believe what they are saying.  If a scientist publishes a peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal which links a decline in prey availability for polar bears with a decline in Arctic sea ice, isn't the best explanation of his behavior that he actually believes what his article says?  Similarly, if a journalist writes an article about the impact of melting sea ice on polar bears, isn't it more likely the case that he is trying to report the news on a complex subject, rather than being an "availability entrepreneur"?  The same is true for activists.  We take positions that we think are scientifically and legally correct and we advocate policies that we think offer real solutions to real problems.  If there's a strategic "availability cascade" memo floating around at NRDC, I've missed it.  Finally, the idea that journalists, scientists and activists are even loosely coordinating their efforts to create such a cascade is a bit of a laugh.  Heck, even environmental activists can't always agree on the right approach to solving global warming and journalists and scientists are not well-known for working in lock step.  Journalism, and particularly science, are fields that reward competition and the overturning of conventional wisdoms.

Second, one has to ask: why is Tierney writing this column to begin with?  It's one thing for an academic like Cass Sunstein to write papers about the phenomena of the "availability cascade" in public debate, but John Tierney is a columnist with a pretty clear agenda on global warming. A quick search of a news database revealed that Tierney has written about thirty columns that mention global warming while at the New York Times, nearly all of them skeptical of climate change or environmental protections in general, and some of them given charming titles like "Cheer Up, Earth Day is Over." For him to write a opinion column gnashing his teeth about how people with agendas are supposedly trying to influence the debate about global warming is, to say the least, a true exercise in chutzpah. 

In short, Tierney has taken an interesting sociological theory about how the public comes to perceive risk and has turned it into a pretty thin conspiracy theory with a whiff of sour grapes.

UPDATE:  Joseph O'Sullivan informs me that Tierney's column is available in the Science section here.

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Joseph O'SullivanJan 1 2008 05:50 PM

The article is in the Science Times section. Tierney used to be an op/ed writer for the Times. I disagreed with most of what he wrote about environmental issues.

For reasons beyond me the NY Times made him a science writer, and now Tierney pushes his political opinions as scientific facts.

Andrew WetzlerJan 1 2008 06:12 PM

Thanks Joseph. I didn't know he had switched. I'll post an update.

Edward WawrzyniakJan 4 2008 09:59 PM

NYT recently hired of all people - Bill Kristol - to write a weakly (sic) column.

Isn't this one of the signs of the apocalypse?

Tom FahsbenderJan 9 2008 12:04 PM

While I don't agree with Tierney's general conclusion that denies anthropogenic climate change, I do squirm when qualified hypotheses made by scientists are transformed by the popular media into headline-level certainties. "Global Warming Causing Polar Bear Extinction!" In my role as a science teacher, I try to help my students try to read beyond the headlines and see the ambiguities and uncertainties. Just because this week is a warm one (maybe 10 to 20 degrees above normal), for instance, doesn't mean that it's global warming at work. Wait a decade, gather all the data, and then see. The ping-pong match that takes place on the TV news shows and popular print media often do little credit to the quality of the science on "both sides" of the issue. In real science, that's something of a false dichotomy.

Andrew WetzlerJan 10 2008 02:08 PM


While I agree with your general point, I I differ with your specific example. Global warming is causing polar bears to go extinct. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey, based on detailed projections of sea ice decline in the Arctic, predicts that 2/3 of the world's polar bear populations will be extinct by mid-century. Given the rapid rate of observed sea ice decline we saw the last two summers, that may well be an underestimate.

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